NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker grilled White House press secretary Josh Earnest for the Obama administration’s change in position on sending U.S. troops to fight on the ground in Syria.
During Fridays daily briefing Welker brought up Barack Obama’s Sept. 10, 2013, “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. So with this announcement today, isn’t he effectively breaking that promise to the American people?”
Earnest spun the question insisting, “Kristen, in September of 2013, the president was receiving questions about what the United States was prepared to do… And the president was making the point he was not prepared to put boots on the ground to take down the Assad regime.”
“Again that is precisely the mistake the previous administration made in implementing a regime change policy against Iraq and putting US forces in a large scale long-term ground combat operation to try to take down Saddam Hussein,” insisted Earnest. “That did not serve the interests of the United States and in some ways, we are still paying the price for that mistake. So that is, the quote you pulled there is a very different situation.”
Welker shot back, “But he said definitively he was not going to put boots on the ground. We heard him reiterate that same idea multiple times, that he wouldn’t put boots on the ground in Syria.”
Earnest claimed, “Well again, you have read one quote, that to be fair, is out of context. The situation that the president has described is a description of the kind of mission that our men and women in uniform will have in our counter ISIL campaign.”
Welker pressed, “He consistently said he’s not going to put boots on the ground, Josh. You don’t deny that. He’s consistently said that. That would not be part of this strategy.”
Earnest said, “Well, again, Kristen, the only quote you read to me is a quote from 2013 that is a direct question related to what we were prepared to do to ensure that our concerns about the Assad regime and the need for regime change were implemented. The fact is the president said we are not going to implement a military strategy to take down Bashar al Assad. What we want to do is we want to build the capacity of local forces to make sure that they can be focused on ISIL and that’s the strategy that the president has been focused on here. And when the president has talked about combat situations, the president has been quite clear that he does not contemplate a large scale long-term ground combat operation, either in Iraq or in Syria. That was his policy at the beginning of our counter ISIL operations and it’s our strategy today.”
Welker asked Earnest about sending “less than 50 forces” that could wind up in “dangerous situations, could wind up in combat roles. So given that, how is that not a change in strategy?”
Earnest responded, “Because our strategy all along has been focused on building the capacity of local forces to fight these fights against ISIL for themselves in their own country. And our efforts to resupply them, to reequip them, to conduct air strikes in advance of their ground operations and in coordination with their ground operations, have improved their performance on the battlefield. That element of our strategy to build their capacity has yielded progress and so the president wants to intensify that assistance that we are providing and one way you can intensify that assistance is to pair them up with experts, with some of the smartest, bravest, most effective fighters in the United States Military. That’s exactly what we are doing. I do expect that that will improve their performance on the battlefield.”
Earnest insisted the U.S. forces “will not be in a combat mission.”
When asked if Obama had the legal authority to operate a war in Syria, Earnest claimed, “The answer simply is that Congress in 2001 did give the Executive Branch authorization to take this action and there’s no debating that. What the president has said he would welcome is Congress passing an authorization to use military force.”
Earnest then criticized Congress for not authorizing new legislation for not doing anything to pass new legislation specifically authorizing military intervention in Syria.